RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
American troops who made it home from Iraq or Afghanistan are discovering another side to their story. During all those long deployments, their families moved on without them.
Yesterday, we heard how some military parents have missed seeing their children grow up. Today, we hear how one family struggled to adjust to the separation and struggled again when mom came home from war. Erin Toner reports from member station WUWM in Milwaukee.
ERIN TONER: Lieutenant Colonel Ann Knabe lives with her husband and two little girls in Waterford, a small town in southeast Wisconsin. She was deployed twice in 2006 and spent most of that year away from her family. Colonel Knabe was based in Southwest Asia with the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing. The unit flew missions into Iraq, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa.
Lieutenant Colonel ANN KNABE (Public Affairs Chief, Air Force Reserve; 379th Air Expeditionary Wing): I felt like I was living some great adventure, which people would pay for. I was thinking about my husband back home - boy, he would hate this one, it's really hot. You know, and the food, boy he'd be complaining the whole time. So for me, it was a privilege.
TONER: Knabe likes to say she's a paid cheerleader for a bunch of heroes. Her official title is public affairs chief with the Air Force Reserve. Her accounts of her deployment are gung-ho positive.
Lt. Col. KNABE: Something that I had to really be careful about is showing my enthusiasm in the e-mails I sent home. In fact, my dad cautioned me and said you sound like you're having a little too much fun there, the time of your life, and I was.
TONER: Meanwhile, Ann's husband, Gene(ph), was back home working full-time and doing everything for the kids and the house with little outside help.
Mr. GENE KNABE (Military Husband): I was just like I can't believe she's doing this. I'm sitting here with these kids every day - not that I don't love my children - but there was a level of resentment there that I'm not having any fun with this.
TONER: Tonight, Ann and the girls, Madison(ph) and Ariana(ph), watch Gene cooking dinner: fajitas with grilled chicken and bell peppers. He says he did a lot more cooking and got a lot better at it while Ann was deployed. Parenting also became very scheduled: getting the girls up and off to school and daycare, picking them up, making dinner, helping with homework, and then the same thing the next day. Gene says the day was so tightly managed that Ann's morning calls from overseas could derail the whole thing.
Mr. KNABE: Finally, I just had to say you can't call in the mornings. We just can't get everybody out the door on time if there's that disruption in our schedules.
TONER: So they had to resort to weekend phone calls, but even then, Ann sometimes had to accept that life back home was going on without her. She remembers one call in particular.
Lt. Col. KNABE: Gene kept calling and calling for Madison, and he said Maddy, your mom is on the phone from overseas, get up here. So she came up and gave me 20 seconds and said mom, I miss you so much. You're the greatest mom in the world. I'm so proud of you. Okay, gotta go.
TONER: Ann says she was a little hurt, but at least she knew the girls weren't too upset about her being gone. In fact, they were doing really well. Madison was getting straight A's in school, and little Ariana had learned to talk.
Gene tried to keep Ann in the loop as much as possible. On Christmas, when the family couldn't be together, he e-mailed Ann a song that Madison sang at school.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. MADISON KNABE (Daughter of Lt. Col. Ann and Mr. Gene Knabe): (Singing) And when we sing that magic song...
Lt. Col. KNABE: I remember sitting at the computer, because he sent it over as an MP3 file, a sound file, you know, listening to it in the middle of the day, and I just started crying. I said this, this is what I'm missing back home, my girl.
Ms. ARIANA KNABE (Daughter of Lt. Col. Ann and Mr. Gene Knabe): I only want a plain taco. I only want a plain taco.
TONER: Over dinner tonight, the girls listen as mom and dad talk about grown-up things like their marriage and parenting. Gene's careful not to make it sound as if he didn't enjoy being at home with his daughters while Ann was gone, but he says it would have been nice to have had a break once in a while.
Mr. KNABE: Before she deployed, people would say that, they would say oh yeah, if you ever need anything, and you know, nobody really made it happen. They didn't step up and make it happen. It was just words.
TONER: Gene says one way he did get a break and some adult company was by teaching spinning on Saturday mornings at the YMCA. It was all part of their routine: Get the girls up at the crack of dawn and get to the Y by 7:00. Afterward, the three of them always went out for breakfast.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. KNABE: Reach down and put about a quarter turn on the wheel.
TONER: It's a routine that became a tradition. Gene still teaches spinning, and the girls still come along, and now that she's back home from the war, Ann comes along, too, but after the class, Ann heads to Starbucks for coffee and a newspaper. Breakfast on Saturdays is still just dad and his girls.
For NPR News, I'm Erin Toner in Milwaukee.